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A Firearms Demonstration

Hastings, late August 1847

“It’s damnable poor timing!” Jack slouched sulkily in the parlour.

“You cannot expect a baby to arrive at your convenience,” Kate replied, amazed by her brother’s childish petulance. “I’m here to help with the birth, and tend to little Jack, not spend all my time with you and your inventions.”

“Don’t you want to work with me?”

“Of course, more than anything, but Phoebe comes first. Why would you invite anyone to a shooting demonstration under these circumstances?”

“One of the inventors is French, and available for mere days. Another is a professor from the University of Basel in Switzerland – a great mind! He’s only in England a fortnight. I went to considerable trouble to have him visit Hastings.”

“Then you may meet without me. Surely these men can fire your pistols?”

“It’s not that simple, and it’s not just my pistols. Several gunsmiths are bringing test models. Certain… problems, restrictions, force me to carry out the demonstration in… with the utmost discretion.”

“Why? Restrictions placed by whom?”

“I shan’t tell you.” Jack stood and peered out a window. He removed his spectacles and polished the lenses with a handkerchief. “There are patent concerns,” he added finally. “Having you handle the various weapons, as a disinterested party, a member of the family, would be ideal. And, from now on, everything you work on with me is to be kept secret.”

“Oh? So these men… their inventions haven’t been patented? They desire someone like me, who has no intention of manufacturing pistols, to–”

“Yes, that’s right,” Jack cut in. “A harmless girl, but trained to shoot. To fire the weapons and give a simple critique on each.”

“Well… fine. I’m happy to assay, and to keep it all quiet. Who would I share the information with anyway? But it will have to be after the baby is born.”

“Right, I’ll talk to Phoebe.” Jack strode to the door.

“Wait! About what?”

“Hurrying the baby along.”

“No! Jack, you know it doesn’t work like that.”

“Phoebe can do anything. You’ll see. The baby will be born within the next day or two, so we can go ahead with the demonstration in three days. I can’t put it off any longer.”

***

Three days later Kate stood still while Isabel laced her into a corset and petticoats. Mrs. Crozier insisted Kate wear her best travelling suit for the shooting demonstration, because it was suitably elegant and the sage green colour hid dirt better than anything else in her wardrobe.

“You will play with little Jack whilst I am gone?” Kate asked in halting Spanish.

“Yes. We’ll explore the kitchen garden and determine his interests,” Mrs. Crozier replied in Russian.

Kate took a moment to silently translate, struggling with the Slavonic tongue. She had worked with her tutor constantly and intently while travelling to Hastings, but much still eluded her vocabulary and pronunciation.

“And Isabel will accompany me,” Kate said effortlessly in German while donning a silk bodice.

“Yes. A noble young lady should always have a servant,” Mrs. Crozier said in Latin.

Kate thought perhaps it could have been phrased better, but resisted the temptation of correcting her tutor. Virgo nobilis, servus tuus custodit semper? I think that sounds correct. Oh, I don’t have time to start parsing sentences in a dead language. “Isabel, will we be ready by ten o’clock?”

“Yes, my lady. Hold still.” She buttoned the skirt inside the jacket and let Kate finish the fasteners.

“Remember to maintain your posture while shooting,” Mrs. Crozier said.

“Her Ladyship looks statuesque,” Isabel commented quietly.

Kate stood in front of a cheval glass, examining herself, smoothing on chamois gloves. Indeed, the burgundy velvet trim of the jacket lapels created gently curving plunging angles from shoulders to waist, mirrored upon the skirt, accentuating her long athletic torso. She girded the small of her midriff with her hands, and posed triumphantly, chin held high.

“No, not like that. That’s too…” It was a rare occasion when the society tutor appeared slightly flustered and lost for words. “Don’t stand with your hands like that. You grow… too ripe… far too alluring for a girl your age.”

“Thank you?”

“Take your parasol. It’s the best way to keep your hands still.”

Isabel took up a straw sun hat decorated with brightly coloured silk flowers and helped Kate secure the ribbon while keeping her cascading ringlets and tresses neat.

“The wind will be your foe today,” Mrs. Crozier warned, “but if you keep your headdress in place and don’t fuss with your hair you might manage tolerably. I’ll inspect your semblance upon your return.”

“I must look in on Phoebe and the children.” Kate strode for the door. “Isabel, I’ll meet you in the front hall.”

Kate hurried along the corridor and, upon hearing high soft humming, entered the nursery. Little Jack played on the floor with some pots and wooden spoons while Phoebe sat in a rocking chair and fed the baby.

“Have you decided on a name?” Kate asked with ongoing curiosity, crouching over to peer at the little pink face. “She’s perfect. You should name her Perfectus.”

“All parents think their babes are so, and so do doting aunts.” Phoebe chuckled. “No… still haven’t decided.”

“Are you… disappointed… with a girl?” Kate had assisted with the delivery, and thought there may have been a shade of chagrin pass over Phoebe’s features when she’d learned the gender of the newborn.

“Not at all,” Phoebe said with conviction. “Little Jack grows stronger every day. And there are more babes in my future. This was such an easy birthing.”

“It was?!” Kate exclaimed, recalling the stress, sweat, blood, and pain.

“Yes!” Phoebe laughed. “Your brother insists on at least six. I think four might be reasonable. We’ll see.”

“But… you don’t have any control over that… do you?”

“Oh…” Phoebe diverted her gaze. “Yes… there are… we’ll need to have a little talk before you wed – in a few years.”

Kate’s curiosity went from bubbling to boiling in seconds. “You can decide when to be with child? Can all women do this? Why do poor women have more children than they can feed? Why do–”

“Kate, Kate, calm down. You’re disturbing the baby.” Phoebe adjusted her grasp of the newborn. “We don’t have time to discuss all that now.”

“No.” Kate glanced at the mantle clock. “This evening?”

“If we have a moment of privacy.”

***

“Hurry, please hurry,” Jack begged as he ran to the door and helped Kate out of the carriage.

“The driver took a wrong turn,” she snapped. “Your directions weren’t very clear.”

“They must have been clear enough. Come on.”

Kate noted several carriages with idle attendants, cloaked by the deep shade of the ancient tree-lined lane in the hills north of Hastings. Ensuring her maid followed close behind, Kate walked with her brother to a gate in a stone wall and entered a broad pasture and valley stretching to the west. A stiff breeze tossed the grass; Kate passed off her parasol to Isabel. On high ground well away from the lane stood a collection of men and tables assembled in a row.

“My apologies for the wait, gentlemen,” Jack yelled to them.

Louis Nicolas Auguste Flobert (1819 – 94), photographed in the mid 1800s with his pistols and rifles.

“Not at all!” The man closest to them (about thirty years of age with a distinct French accent and curled beard) took a few steps forward and swept off his tall straight top hat.

“That is Mr. Flobert,” Jack said to Kate.

“Bonjour, Monsieur Flobert,” Kate called softly.

“Enchanté!” He bowed grandiosely. “Vous êtes très jolie, et svelte, Mademoiselle. Pouvez-vous tirer?”

Kate felt offended and pulled Jack back from farther approach. “Why didn’t you introduce me properly?” she demanded. “Don’t these men know who I am? Did you hear how he spoke to me? He questioned my ability to shoot!”

“Calm down,” Jack whispered. “He didn’t mean any offence – he’s just French. Maybe he’s a republican and doesn’t go in for titles. Don’t be intemperate.”

Kate thought she had every right to be sensitive, and completely reasonable to have her title used properly. Anger smouldered in her breast.

“Lady Kate,” Jack said loudly, stressing her honorific, “allow me to present Mr. Boss, inventor, of Saint James’s Street.”

Kate stepped up to a short elderly man with white whiskers.

“I’m happy to meet you, my lady,” he said softly.

“And I you, Mr. Boss.”

“Lord Shervage told us his sister would be handling the guns today. I heard Mr. Flobert ask if you can shoot. I do not doubt your skill… and I loath presumption. But…”

“Please, sir, ask your question,” Kate prompted.

“In my eyes, everyone appears young. Are you… perhaps sixteen?”

“Perhaps,” Kate replied elusively. I think that is presumptuous. He doesn’t need to know my age.

“She’s thirteen,” Jack announced.

“My word!” Mr. Boss declared.

Kate’s smouldering anger grew hot. She tugged at Jack’s elbow and proceeded to the next table. “Get on with this,” she growled in her brother’s ear.

“Very good.” Jack gave her a puzzled look. “This is Mr. Allen, of Massachusetts. Mr. Allen, this is Lady Kate Beaufort.”

“Good mornin’, milady,” Mr. Allen said with a smile, removing his wide-brimmed slouch hat and offering a bare right hand.

“Good morning, Mr. Allen,” Kate replied and smiled, but didn’t accept the offered physical greeting. “An American. Do you now live in England, or are you visiting?”

“Visitin’,” he said plainly, to match his brown wool suit. He set his hat on the table and slipped his hands easily into his pockets. Of all the party he alone wasn’t wearing gloves, his exposed skin tanned golden brown.

“For long?” Kate asked.

“A month.”

Kate glanced at the pepperbox revolvers spread out on the table beside him. “I’ve fired models of your manufacture before,” she stated.

“Good.”

“Yes, good,” Jack said. “Moving along…” He guided Kate to a table with several unusual handguns. “Allow me to introduce Mr. Webley, down from Birmingham.”

“Lady Kate,” Mr. Webley said with a bow from the neck. “How do you do.”

“How do you do,” Kate replied to the rather plain middle-aged man, her attention already drawn to a handsome young buck, perhaps twenty years of age, in the latest London fashion, lean and broad shouldered, who removed his hat and bowed.

James Purdey (1828 – 1909), depicted in the late 1800s. He obviously had changed a great deal from when Kate met him.

“This is Mr. Purdey, of Oxford Street,” Jack said as they continued down the line.

“Ah! James Purdey and Sons!” Kate exclaimed. “I’ve visited your establishment with my father many times.”

“I’m his eldest son, my lady,” Mr. Purdey said with a broad smile. “I hope to take the reins from my father in the near future. He resists the sort of innovations we’re displaying today.”

“Innovations aside, your rifles and shotguns are beautiful pieces of craftsmanship! Now I may safely guess where my brother gets much of his wood and metalwork completed.” Kate took a rifle from the table and ran a glove over the forestock and filigree decorations. “Did you produce this together?”

“We did.” He beamed at her enthusiasm.

“I thought only pistols were slated for today.” Kate struck a martial pose and aimed at distant trees. “This will be a pleasure.”

“I’m looking forward to seeing you handle my… uhh… that is to say…”

Kate swivelled back to Mr. Purdey and saw a deep red blush rising to the roots of his fair hair. He grinned at her sheepishly with a twinkle in his eye. She silently replayed their words, not certain of the implication, and abruptly felt confused, hot, and awkward. God’s wounds! What’s this about? If only he wasn’t so handsome…

Kate placed the rifle down and stepped beside her brother. Mr. Purdey bowed again.

“Who, ah…” Kate gasped, her corset restricting her lungs when she attempted to take a deep breath.

“Are you ill?” Jack asked.

“No.” Kate recovered, taking her brother’s elbow and strolling away from Mr. Purdey. “Who are these last gentlemen?”

Three men in silk and moleskin suits stood somewhat distant from the party. Kate recognised the pistols on their table as being models worked upon by Jack.

“They shall remain nameless,” he said softly. “You needn’t have any words with them.”

“Oh…” Kate eyed each man in turn, taking in their features, height, facial hair, posture; a pair stood ramrod straight, while one leaned casually against the table examining some binoculars. “Soldiers?” she asked.

“You don’t need to know,” Jack replied.

Kate turned to her brother. “The professor from Basel isn’t here?”

“No, I met with Schönbein two days ago.”

“What were his weapons like?”

“He didn’t have any. We discussed propellants.”

“Did it go well?”

“Well enough.” Jack shrugged. “Let’s get on with the demonstration.”

“Where do I begin?”

“Back at the other end, with Mr. Flobert.”

“Right.” I’ll show him who can shoot!

Kate strode confidently to the table beside the Frenchman. His pistols were all small single-shot models with rounded wooden handles, a few elaborately decorated. They were constructed with centre hammers and open sights mounted on the barrels. Kate selected a pistol with the longest barrel and palmed it to feel the balance.

“When you cock the hammer, you will be able to sight down the barrel, Mademoiselle,” Mr. Flobert said.

Paper targets pinned to three straw archery bullseyes sat on easels about thirty paces downhill from the tables; not an easy distance for accurate shooting with any pistol.

“Shall I simply fire each of these once?” Kate asked Jack.

“Yes.”

Kate stepped in front of the table, cocked the weapon, aimed at the left-hand target, controlled her breathing, squeezed the trigger, and fired. She noticed very little kick from the shot. The smoke cleared quickly on the wind.

“Did you miss?” Jack pushed his spectacles up onto his brow.

One of the nameless men jogged down and pointed to the left of the target with a thin cane, then side-stepped clear. Kate took another pistol, cocked the hammer, adjusted her aim slightly for the wind, and fired. The man pointed just left of centre with his cane.

“Good shot!” Jack exclaimed, and some other men murmured agreement.

“These must be of a tiny calibre,” Kate said, happy for the praise but more interested in the weapons, “and with a low velocity at muzzle.”

“Ho, ho, ho!” Mr. Flobert nodded, but didn’t offer any data.

Kate chose another pistol and cocked it. She peered into the breech to determine the construction and couldn’t comprehend the details. Where is the percussion cap? These feel like airguns, but they certainly use powder. Once again she aimed and fired, this time hitting to the right of centre.

“I cannot make decent shots unless I use the same pistol a few times,” Kate muttered under her breath to Jack. “This isn’t fair.”

“It’s not about what’s fair,” Jack whispered. “With Flobert, it’s about the ammunition. Just keep shooting.”

Kate felt puzzled and annoyed but did as instructed. She took up the remaining weapons, two at a time, cocking and firing with both hands, demonstrating much less care. Only one pistol misfired, and Kate generally hit the target not far off centre.

“There,” Kate said, setting down the last pair of pistols. “Shall we discuss the performance of these models now?”

“No no, later,” Jack hissed.

“Very well.” Kate stepped to Mr. Boss’s table. Only three weapons awaited testing. They too were single-shot models, of heavy construction with large barrels. “Calibre, Mr. Boss?” Kate asked as she hefted a pistol.

“Sixty and sixty-four,” he replied. “I suggest you grip the handles of each with both hands, my lady.”

“Thank you, I shall.” Kate moved in front of the table and adjusted her feet a few times. She tested her aim before cocking the hammer, then settled into a firm and comfortable stance. When she squeezed the trigger the weapon barked and pushed back with great force on her wrists and elbows. At the same instance, the wind blew her hat brim over one eye and swirled the smoke. Kate heard some laughter and saw the easel and target drop to the ground. “What happened?” she asked no one in particular.

“Her Ladyship hit the hinge of the easel,” the man with the cane called. He held up a piece of mangled wood and metal.

Kate looked to her brother, feeling rather badly about the destruction.

“No matter,” Jack said with a shrug. “Switch to the centre target.”

Kate found a new place to stand, where her boots would be solid and even, then fired the other two weapons in turn. Both shots blew large holes through the outer ring of the target. “These are very powerful, Mr. Boss,” Kate said. “With some practice I might hit centre. I’d have to get a feel for each model.”

“Your shots would have hit a man with devastating effects, my lady,” Mr. Boss said. “How are your wrists?”

“They’re fine, thank you.” Kate replied lightly, but in fact noticed a pang in her left elbow. Her hat brim was truly bothersome as it bent in the wind. “Isabel, help me.” Kate pulled her headdress off and stood still while her maid tied her hair back with a ribbon.

“What will Mrs. Crozier say?” Isabel whispered.

“Needs must. I cannot shoot if I cannot see.”

Kate proceeded to Mr. Allen’s table. His weapons were crafted with five and six barrels in a single housing, the hammer cocking with the draw of the trigger. She felt confident firing his various revolvers and took up one in each hand, taking a few strides towards the target as she shot, leaving it peppered with holes. None of these weapons were built with sights, so Kate aimed by intuition.

“Seven in the centre,” the man with the cane called.

“These are an improvement over your earlier models,” Kate said. “Two misfires out of thirty-four caps. The draw on the triggers isn’t as long, but still effects aim. Several of my shots went wide of the target.”

“But at ten paces, milady?” Mr. Allen asked.

“Indeed, deadly at closer range,” Jack said. “Two seemed quite accurate?”

“These models.” Kate pointed them out. “Fluted barrels?”

“That’s right.” Mr. Allen nodded.

“Mr. Webley next,” Jack urged.

“Mine are purely test models, my lady,” Mr. Webley advised. “Akin to Mr. Allen’s, but with a single barrel and rotating chamber.”

Kate picked up two weapons. “They’re significantly lighter.” She glanced at Jack. “Not much heavier than a single-shot pistol. And well balanced.”

When it came to operation, however, the revolvers performed similarly to Mr. Allen’s pepperboxes, with a long draw, some misfires, and inaccuracy. Sights were positioned on each barrel, but they didn’t seem to help. Kate paused to peer closely at the construction a few times. If I had an option to cock the hammers before firing I could be much more accurate. Fluted barrels would help. The chamber rotation isn’t very smooth…

“Now the rifles,” Jack said as Kate set down the last of Mr. Webley’s revolvers.

“Excellent,” Kate said enthusiastically and eyed Mr. Purdey shyly.

Mr. Purdey removed his hat again and pulled a blanket from beneath his table. “May I spread this out for you, my lady?”

“Yes, where would you like it, Lady Kate?” Jack asked.

Kate discerned a sinking feeling. They expect me to lie down? In this outfit? Lie prone in this corset?! Impossible! “I’ll shoot standing.”

“That may not be wise,” Mr. Purdey advised.

“You can’t aim nearly as well standing,” Jack added. “These rifles are heavy.”

“I’ll manage,” Kate said firmly, grasping a rifle. “Where is my target?” She scanned down the valley and spotted the man with the cane approximately two hundred paces away to the west. Off to his right, about the same height as the man, rippled a white square with a black spot at centre. “What is that?”

“Material stretched between posts. After each shot give the captain time to indicate where you hit and get well clear again.”

“Captain?” Kate asked playfully.

“Ah, yes… no.” Jack coloured noticeably.

Kate laughed lightly and stepped in front of the table. She cocked the rifle, aimed at the black spot, controlled her breathing, squeezed the trigger, and fired. She sensed a solid kick from the shot. The smoke whisked away on the wind. The captain approached the target and pointed low and to the right, then resumed his safe position. Kate took another rifle and repeated the process, this time hitting closer to centre but still to the right.

“Have a care with that one,” Mr. Purdey said as Kate took up a long heavy model.

“Thank you, I shall.”

Once again, Kate aimed, controlled her breathing, squeezed the trigger, and fired. An enormous kick slammed into her shoulder and cheekbone. Her upper body jerked back and she dropped the weapon. Some of the men laughed! Kate held her cheek for only a moment, then the pain vanished, going numb, hot rage coursing through her marrow. Mr. Purdey dashed forward and picked up the rifle.

“Are you all–”

“I’m fine!” Kate snapped, cutting him off. She grabbed the last rifle and spun on the target, firing in a heartbeat.

Kate pepperbox revolver testing while Jack watches, by Mia Lane.

The captain, who had been caught by surprise, indicated a spot almost at centre. Kate passed the rifle to Mr. Purdey and stormed to the last table. The nameless men retreated.

“Which is the finest?” Kate demanded of her brother, outwardly maintaining her composure. Grr… I’ll show them! She didn’t wait for an answer and snatched up a large five-shot pepperbox revolver. Laugh at me, will they? She cocked the hammer and fired three shots in quick succession, hitting the centre of the right-hand target effortlessly. See that?!

Several members of the party allowed exclamations of surprise and awe to escape their lips. Kate adjusted her stance, raised her chin, cocked the hammer, aimed, squeezed the trigger, then jumped when an impact went through her body and grit hit her face. Isabel screamed. Kate focused on her hand and let the shattered pistol drop from her grip. She blinked, taking in her torn glove, blood… grotesquely maimed flesh… bone?

I’ve blown my hand off!

Jack and Mr. Purdey appeared at her elbows… a vague idea of other people scurrying around. Kate lost clarity. No pain… no sound… nothing… everything went black.

 

 

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